“…so that you may discern what is good…” | August 27

Texts: Exodus 1:8-14; Romans 12:1-8

After our Twelve Hymns series, and last week’s anniversary celebration, we are finally back on the lectionary.  The lectionary provides us with a set of readings from scripture each week.  We join Protestant and Catholics in reflecting on the same readings.  We won’t stick with the lectionary every week starting now, but it’s a home base.

Romans 12 and the opening story of Exodus are two of today’s readings.  We’re bringing our own angle.  Today marks the beginning of our First Fruits pledging process, when all of us are invited to consider how we contribute financially to the mission of this congregation.  So we’re calling this Stewardship Sunday.  If the word “Stewardship” doesn’t work for you, we could call it “Jesus-talked-a-whole-lot-about-economics-and-money-and-we-should-too-so-it’s-more-about-a-way-of-life-than-a-single-Sunday Sunday.”

Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and pleasing and whole.”

There are some passages in the Bible where you almost have to be a cultural anthropologist to understand what’s going on.  Research the setting, parse the language, scan the context for clues.  This isn’t one of those passages.  What Paul wrote to the Romans a couple thousand years ago could have been written directly to us today.

Richard Rohr has offered an updated translation for what shows up here as “world.”  He suggests plugging in the word “system” to get at what the various New Testament writers mean when they talk in this way.

So with that gloss, here’s how these words read: “Do not be conformed to the system, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and pleasing, and whole.”

From an economic angle, it ought to take very little convincing to acknowledge we are deeply embedded in a system that affects just about every aspect of our lives.  It is global in reach and personal in its effects.  The economic system of which we are a part has done amazing things like put clothes in our closets and a smart phone in the pocket of those clothes.  In the last 25 years it has, according to the World Bank, lifted 1.3 billion people out of extreme poverty.  That’s pretty remarkable.  It has no doubt enlarged the pie from which we all feast.  It’s also responsible for mountain top removal, displacement of entire people groups, and massive wealth disparity.

We know this.  We try to be aware that we vote every day with the dollars we spend.

Wendell Berry is one of the harshest critics of our economic system.  He urges anyone who will listen to think of it as the “little economy.”  The Great Economy is the “all-encompassing and integrated system” of the natural world.  To use a theological term – The Great Economy is Creation.  The little economy is utterly dependent on the Great Economy.  He writes that the problem is the system we’ve created “does not see itself as the little economy.  It sees itself as the only economy…The industrial economy is based on invasion and pillage of the Great Economy” (Quoted in The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics, by Ched Myers, p. 17).

For more of a takedown on the industrial economic system, see just about anything Wendell Berry has written.

For a pre-industrial take down, try the book of Exodus.

After Genesis lays out the Great Economy of Creation, characterized by goodness and abundance, Exodus follows it up with a narrative about the brokenness of the little economy.

Exodus begins by listing the children of Jacob, also named Israel.  They are three generations removed from Abraham and Sarah, and have settled in the land of Egypt.  Egypt had served as a place of refuge for them.  Thanks to the foresight and shrewd management of their brother Joseph, who had risen to power as Pharaoh’s right hand man, Egypt had stores of food during an extended famine.  When all the neighboring lands ran out, people flocked to Egypt to care for their families – to eat, and stay alive.  The Israelites among them.  They are invited by Joseph to stay in Egypt, which they do.  But that generation dies off, and a new Pharaoh comes to power who did not know Joseph.

In the words of Exodus, the Israelites “were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them.”  The new Pharaoh sees in these migrants and foreigners both a threat and an opportunity.  He creates a public works jobs program, otherwise known as forced labor, otherwise known as slavery.  The Israelites build entire cities for Pharaoh.  Exodus names two of them: Pithom and Rameses.  Entire cities.  When they keep multiplying and the demographic shift continues, the Egyptians treat them even harsher.  Eventually the Israelites not only have to make bricks for the construction projects, they have to go out and find their own straw to put in the bricks.  This is life in Pharaoh’s economy.

Exodus, and much of the biblical narrative, is told from the perspective of those on the underside of the system.  Those who make it tick but receive very little of the benefits.

When Pharaoh’s officials put out their glowing quarterly reports that brick production is up, and the costs of inputs are down, the Israelites aren’t buying it as gospel.  They were the inputs.

Last week’s sermon talked some about the importance of origin stories.  Like the foundational goodness of creation, Genesis 1.  Like Jesus offering bread and wine as his own body and life-blood to his followers.  Life this congregation choosing from the very beginning to affiliate with two historically separate Mennonite groups and be a living bridge.  Like this Exodus story, which serves as an origins story for the people of Israel.  It is this memory of having been enslaved, of having been delivered from slavery, and given their own agency in how they relate to each other as neighbors, that is to inform how they go about their lives, with economics being front and center.

The ten commandments, and much of the Torah, present an alternative economics to the ways of Pharaoh.  We see practices such as Sabbath-keeping, when humans, animals, and even land is given regular rest, freed from the never ending demands of labor, to be restored.  The practice of Jubilee was a redistribution of land and wealth every 50 years.  We also get the practices of First Fruits and the Tithe.  The people were to bring the first and best of the harvest and present them before the Lord.  A First Fruits offering.  The purpose of the first fruits offering was not to have it go up in smoke, as if to feed a hungry deity.  Instead, as Deuteronomy 26 instructs: “You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God.  Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

First fruits were to be enjoyed, and shared, with those who didn’t have land of their own, Levites and “resident aliens.”  The same with the yearly tithe.  Tithe simply means tenth.  Ten percent of one’s annual income, usually in the form of a physical harvest, was to be dedicated and shared.  And, as Deuteronomy 14 says, “Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe, tenth, of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance (land) with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns (those who don’t have the means of production), may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.”

The memory of having been resident aliens in Egypt, enslaved and robbed of the fruits of their labor, prompts the creation of an alternative economics in which there is enough for everyone.  First Fruits, and the tithe, the tenth, are a big part of this program.  Who says the Hebrew Bible isn’t filled with grace and mercy?

According to the book of Acts, chapters 2 and 4, a sub-group of the early church took these practices even further, letting go all together of percentages of income, holding everything in common, selling land and houses whenever anyone was in need and distributing the proceeds.  Selling off all your assets doesn’t sound like a good long term budget strategy, but it met a present need and shaped a community.

When Paul writes to those little groups of believers in Rome, he follows up “Do not be conformed to the system” with “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  One of the most powerful ways “the system” works on us is that it limits our imaginations.  We are unable to even picture how it might be different, how it could be another way.  It takes soul work, the renewing of our minds, to begin to see and then enact an economics of abundance and generosity and enough-ness.

“Be transformed by the renewing of your minds…so that you may be able to discern what is the will of God, what is good, what is pleasing, what is whole.”

The work of keeping the little economy in service to the Great Economy, involves the renewing of our minds, and ultimately involves the continual act of discernment…. “so that you may be able to discern…what is good.”  As is often the case, the “you” here is plural.  Discernment is a collective act.

What’s this going to look like?  How can we be in the system but not of the system?   Or, as Mary Oliver poses the question “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (The Summer Day)

This is the point where I needed to change the ending – yesterday – in order to acknowledge what’s in front of us today.  Originally, I was going to try to walk that razor’s edge of not sounding too sales pitchy, but still swing this back to our First Fruits pledge process for supporting the mission of this congregation, which of course includes paying our electric bills and giving money to Central District Conference, etc.  Pete and Metz will have a bit more to say about First Fruits when I’m done.

What I didn’t anticipate earlier in the week is that we would have a very specific practice in front of us today for which we need to be discerning what is good.  It has everything to do with stewardship, although less about money and more about stewardship of this building and our time and energy.  It also has quite a bit to do with that Exodus story, especially the treatment of migrants.  And the system.

What we need to discern over the next few days is whether we are willing, with this very short notice, to provide significant support for a Columbus immigrant woman, who is in the final stages of the deportation process.  The meeting after worship will go into more details about her story, and what kind of commitment is being requested of us, but I want to tie this into our worship and reflection on Exodus and Romans and stewardship simply by saying this is real stuff.  Stories like Exodus, of people crossing borders to do what’s best for their families, and getting mistreated, and getting caught up in a system that does great harm, are still lived realities.  There are still communities seeking another way: like ancient Israel, and the early church, and the 16th century Anabaptists, and communities of goodwill all over the world today.

I’m grateful for how this congregation has done good discernment work in the past, and I trust that the Spirit is with us as we prayerfully discern this week how to respond to this situation, and, however we respond, how to increase our solidarity with local immigrants.

I’ll end with the first two verses of Romans chapter 12:  “I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your reasonable act of worship.  Do not be conformed to the system, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and pleasing and whole.”